You'd think Big Bird was a presidential candidate for all the attention he's received over the past week. After Mitt Romney promised to balance the budget on the back of PBS, threatening to cut off funding to Big Bird, Sesame Street allusions dominated social media. Ernie, Bert, the Count and others made appearances across Facebook. Jim Henson puppeteers tweeted their way into the fight. The Obama team tried to tap into the character who motivated more passions than the president's own debate performance with references to Sesame Street on the campaign trail and a Big Bird cameo in an ad.
The politics of Big Bird are pretty clear. When PBS is threatened, the public responds. It's not just the numbers - though the fact that public broadcasting accounts for a minuscule portion of the federal budget makes the attacks against it numerically laughable. It's a gut feeling. Americans get that we need what PBS brings to our country, and especially to our children.
That doesn't mean this particular episode will cut against Romney. Big Bird is a sideshow in a bigger discussion about the president's performance last Wednesday, a dialogue that will shift with tomorrow evening's vice presidential debate. And the debates about debates are themselves a sideshow to the bigger differences between the two candidates. In today's news cycle, it's fun to wonder whether the Obama campaign's embrace of Sesame Street will help or hurt them, whether it will seem petty or potent. In the end, Big Bird probably won't matter than much for the presidential race.
Yet, here's why I really care about Big Bird. It's not what it says about one candidate or one debate, but what Big Bird says about the heart of our country, and it's understanding of the common good.
I grew up watching Sesame Street so I have a personal investment in the cast of Muppets who helped me learn to read and count, who gave words and lyrics to some of my feelings and who tickled my playful gene. As I grew older, I came to understand I wasn't alone: kids across the country, across economics and ethnicity and geography, were also watching with me. Parents of all walks were happy to have a program that gave their children an alternative to commercials, to violence and to insipidness. The average American child sees 40,000 television commercials a year. Without PBS, that number would be far higher.
Sesame Street - and other PBS programming - helps children understand and embrace differences among people. The shows have been so effective as a tool in promoting communication that Sesame Street has been exported to the most divided countries around the world so the characters -- and the educational ideals behind them - could help teach children of different backgrounds to listen to and trust one another.
All of this is accomplished with a sense of playfulness, joy, creativity and hope. These are qualities absent from many television shows and educational experiences, from newscasts and too many classrooms. These are features that don't make their way into political debates, Congressional legislation, or presidential campaigns often enough. These are also the most important ingredients to ensure the greatness and success of our society.
As we hear about reigniting the economy, balancing the budget, promoting industry and the other serious business of the 2012 elections, we talk about America through the metaphor of machinery. We focus on its "engine" and how to get its wheels turning and put our foot on the pedal.
Yet America isn't a machine. We may want a government that runs efficiently and effectively like a piece of well-kept machinery, but we also need to remember that our country isn't just the government or the states. The American people's collective aspirations and challenges and achievements make up our nation. And the government is the tool to support our common goals, confront common challenges and pursue common goals.
Americans need the inspirations that tie us together - and not just keep our engine going, but keep our heart beating with compassion, good humor and optimism. Sesame Street is by no means the only source of that strength, but it contributes. Anything that can do so much for so little should be celebrated and strengthened, not demagogued and threatened.
The federal commitment to PBS is small, but helps public television raise the additional support it needs to keep beating. But we know it's not really about the numbers. It's about describing the kind of country we want to live in.
As a new father, I think a lot about the country we're creating and leaving for our next generation, for my daughter and her millions of unsuspecting and innocent peers. I know that we want that country to be fiscally sound, that we want to be able to fund our commitments. But I also hope that the society she'll discover values creativity and friendship and inclusion. We need her to learn to love first and foremost. And if Big Bird can play any role in that as he did for me, then we still need Big Bird.